The imminent expiration of a controversial decree that provides amnesty against criminal charges to top Pakistani politicians could further weaken the country's embattled civilian government, according to analysts here.
The National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was passed by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007 as part of a political deal, brokered with the assistance of the United States, that allowed the late Benazir Bhutto back into the country to contest 2008 elections without having to face charges related to money-laundering and kickbacks on government contracts. More than 8,000 individuals, mainly bureaucrats, are currently protected by the decree.
The NRO was ostensibly aimed at putting an end to politically motivated corruption cases that had led to bitter fighting between the two major parties during the 1990s, Pakistan's so-called "decade of democracy." But a sustained political campaign led by the main opposition PML-N party and backed by the right-wing media has meant that the NRO "has now become a byword for corruption," according to Cyril Almeida, assistant editor of Dawn, a leading English daily.
Key officials could be liable to prosecution
If the Supreme Court allows the NRO's expiration on Saturday and rules that old cases are automatically reactivated, key officials could be liable to prosecution.
Among the officials who could be affected are Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar, and senior diplomats, including Hussain Haqqani, the ambassador to the United States; and Wajid Shamsul Hassan, the ambassador to Britain.
Presidential immunity means no cases may be brought against President Zardari, even after the NRO's expiration. The president is now "politically vulnerable, but constitutionally impregnable," says Mr.Almeida.
Almeida points out that "no civilian government in Pakistan lasts long after the drumroll of corruption begins," though it is unclear what form the government's downfall could take.
For the time being, at least, the resignation of the president, as demanded by some of his foes, seems unlikely, as does a parliamentary vote of no confidence. The possibility of a military takeover is also low.
The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) last month attempted to formalize the decree through parliament, but withdrew it amid fears that its coalition allies would not back the bill.
Ayaz Sadiq, a member of the parliamentary accounts committee for the opposition PML-N, told the Monitor: "All these cases should have been decided by the court, not by the stroke of pen of a dictator who was supported by the West on all issues." He added that those ministers who are named as beneficiaries of the NRO should resign to clear their names.
Zardari himself should be "held accountable" for alleged misdeeds, he says.
The government, on the other hand, denies the NRO was ever controversial.
"It is understood by the people of Pakistan as a way to bring the leadership back into Pakistan," says Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokesperson for Zardari. She instead blames "antidemocratic elements" for waging a propaganda campaign aimed undermining the moral authority of Zardari, a thinly-veiled reference to Pakistan's shadowy intelligence agencies and elements within the Army.
That point of view is partly backed by Almeida, who says that, while levels of corruption haven't spiked recently, the attention paid to it by the opposition and the media has.
US watching closely
The United States will be keeping a watchful eye on proceedings. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML-N and the country's most popular politician, according to international polling, is widely seen as the man most likely to emerge as a possible future leader.
His traditional ties to the religious right, as well as his party's relatively unenthusiastic response in the US-led war on terrorism (he was, for instance, slow to back Pakistan's recent military offensive in Swat), may signal "a more independent and less subservient stance vis-á-vis the United States," according to Rifaat Hussain, a defense analyst at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.